Aug 22, 2023
Does anyone care about the study linking Pa. fracking to cancer in kids?
Janice Blanock has been demanding answers for nearly a decade. It was late 2013 when her 16-year-old son Luke was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma — a form of bone cancer that is supposed to be quite
Janice Blanock has been demanding answers for nearly a decade. It was late 2013 when her 16-year-old son Luke was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma — a form of bone cancer that is supposed to be quite rare but which eventually struck three other families in their small rural school district in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The first three years after Luke’s diagnoses were a blur. He married his high school sweetheart — shown nationally on the television program Inside Edition — shortly before he died in August 2016. Since then, Blanock and some of her neighbors have relentlessly pressed government officials, including a confrontation with then-Gov. Tom Wolf for information on what seems to be a cancer cluster, and whether it was caused by 1,800 active natural-gas fracking sites in Washington County, Pa.
This month, Blanock and other activists learned the results of major health studies that the Wolf administration agreed to pay for right after that 2019 confrontation. They discovered that the research into whether fracking — unconventional drilling for natural gas trapped in the shale under rural Pennsylvania — is sickening people who live nearby managed to be both inadequate and alarming at the same time.
Blanock was in the audience as researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health, told a packed hearing in Washington County that the sample of Ewing’s sarcoma cases like Luke Blanock’s was considered too small to establish a definitive link to gas drilling.
But other findings by the Pitt researchers confirmed some of the worst health fears for people who live near the fracking pads that have sprouted like mushrooms across rural Pennsylvania in the first 15 years of the 21st century, and made the state a leading U.S. producer of natural gas.
“For childhood cancer, we found that children living close to active wells, or near many wells, had a higher risk for developing a cancer called lymphoma,” James Fabisiak, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, told the meeting.
The researchers also found that natural-gas wells in the production mode — there are thousands of such sites across the state — increase the risk for neighbors of lower birth-weight babies, and for asthma attacks by a factor of four or five times. One expert with Physicians for Social Responsibility called that last finding a “bombshell.”
A bombshell that landed with a thud in Harrisburg and apparently failed to detonate.
The Shapiro administration sent a deputy health commissioner, Kristen Rodack, to the meeting, where she reportedly told the emotional room — including several parents who’d lost a child to cancer — that “I’ll apologize on behalf of the department for not listening as well in the past.” But the state response — to this research that it paid for — lacked any of the sense of urgency you’d expect when a cancer risk is connected to children.
The Department of Health said the “bombshell” study will lead to ... more studies. It also announced a number of small-bore responses like updating its website for nearby-fracking residents to submit complaints, offering more “air quality awareness” education for Pennsylvania schoolkids, and better training for doctors and nurses in recognizing and dealing with environmental exposures.
Seriously? It almost feels like a scenario where a raging wildfire is fast approaching a mountain town, and the government response is to show kids some “Smokey the Bear” videos and give local doctors a refresher course on burn treatment — rather than evacuating the residents to safety.
“We don’t need more studies — we need action,” Blanock told me Thursday by phone from her home in Cecil, Pa., even as she noted that state leaders continue to seem more concerned about saving oil and gas jobs. “We rely on the Department of Health and the DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] to protect us as citizens, but they just keep passing the buck. I’m disappointed.”
Pennsylvania’s addiction to the supposed economic promise of natural gas fracking — and the good-paying blue-collar jobs that never seem to quite add up — apparently makes more radical steps unthinkable. Even when the thought is to get our own children out of harm’s way.
Long-time anti-fracking and climate activist Karen Feridun of the Better Path Coalition — a frequent thorn in the side of Democratic governors Wolf and now Josh Shapiro — told me that Shapiro’s “only official statement that day [the study was released] announced that Pennsylvania is open for business, referring to increased money for subsidies like the one that gave fossil fuel giant Shell $10 million to build its ethane cracker plant in Beaver County. The level of tone-deafness is astonishing.”
This week, I pressed Shapiro’s office about the governor’s sense of urgency around the link between fracking and cancer. His spokesman, Will Simons, said that Shapiro first signaled a tough-on-polluters approach in 2020 when, as attorney general, he led a grand jury probe critical of both the industry and of lax state regulation — which he plans to toughen now that he’s governor. But the Democratic chief executive believes it’s still possible to regulate the industry while reaping the benefit of energy jobs.
“Governor Shapiro believes we must reject the false choice between projecting jobs and protecting our planet,” Simons said in an email. “The Governor is working to do both — and that’s why his Administration is working to embrace the Commonwealth’s role as an energy leader, create good-paying jobs, take meaningful action to address climate change, and fulfill our constitutional obligation to protect Pennsylvanians’ clean air and pure water.”
Here’s three problems with Shapiro’s so-called “false choice.”
First, evidence is mounting that the economic benefits of fracking were seriously overhyped. Just last week, the Ohio River Valley Institute issued a new report finding that the Appalachian counties that produce 90% of our region’s natural gas from fracking have actually underperformed economically since the beginning of the boom period — losing 10,000 jobs and 47,000 residents.
» READ MORE: Pa. grand jury ‘indicts’ fracking. Now what? | Will Bunch Newsletter
Second, the Shapiro administration’s balancing act between jobs and the clear-cut health risks from fracking ought to also account for the role that fossil fuels are playing in the worsening climate crisis, which has triggered a long hot summer of deadly wildfires, heat waves and floods. The new governor has said (infrequently) that greenhouse-gas pollution is a problem, but his lukewarm approach around climate change — including a task force that meets in secret and hasn’t disclosed all its members — has befuddled some of his environmentalist supporters.
Third, the new state-funded Pitt study is far from the first indication that fracking is not healthy for children and other living things. In 2021, Environmental Health Network did extensive bloodwork on five families who living close to natural-gas sites and found that biomarkers for hazardous and possibly carcinogenic chemicals, linked to the fracking process, were extremely high. In 2022, a Yale School of Public Health study found that children born near fracking sites in Pennsylvania had double the risk of developing leukemia later in childhood.
“These studies are not a shock for those of us who have been watching the science and seeing the real life impacts,” Laura Dagley, with Physicians for Social Responsibility in Pennsylvania, told me. She added: “The only response I have heard from the state is the need for more education and more studies. Even though I support this, it is not enough.”
No, it’s not. On one hand, activists like Blanock and the retired journalist who broke the Ewing’s sarcoma story for a Pittsburgh newspaper have argued that the four-year Pitt study could have done a lot more to establish a connection between fracking and other types of pediatric cancer — failing, for example, to closely evaluate the impact of types of radium that are produced by gas drilling and have been linked to bone cancers for roughly a century.
But it’s reasonable to also question how much more information is needed at this point. “These kids are our future,” Blanock said, noting that increasingly the gas that’s fracked in Pennsylvania is used to make single-use plastic products. “If you care more about that ... ” Her voice trailed off.
Activists like Blanock and Feridun would back a moratorium on fracking — something that Pennsylvania’s last two Democratic governors would never put on the table, even with these damning studies. As a fallback, Dagley of Physicians for Social Responsibility and Blanock both say Pennsylvania should implement all the recommendations of the 2020 grand jury led by Shapiro — including expanding the new-drill zone around schools or other facilities from 500 to 2,500 feet, full disclosure of fracking chemicals, closing the revolving door of state regulators into industry jobs, and more.
That would certainly be better than doing nothing. A story that we tell ourselves to live in America is that absolutely nothing is more important in our society than protecting the life of a child. The sad reality is such a long way away from that.
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